The latest chapter in the destruction of Norristown's historical architecture seems to have begun this week when the Preservation Society posted the photo at the right with the caption "This building at 826 DeKalb Street, Norristown has been condemned and is scheduled for demolition." I say "seems" because the story began long before that.
826 Dekalb and its twin 824 were built in 1899. They're Greek Revival style (no arches over the windows and double chimneys), but also have some Italianate elements, which was another popular style at the time. 826 in particular has a unusually nice historical facade on the front, with marble stone facing. Both houses were built 3 stories in front with a 2 story section in back. 826 has another add-on in the rear (as you can see in the next photo).
Apparently the HARB believed, after reading the engineer's report, that
only the back of the building needed to be demolished. My friend went to
take a look at the building himself yesterday. Here are his
"The street (west) front façade and the north
façade of the front portion of the house are plumb and without
significant damage. The floor structure runs north-south and appears
level. The rear wall of the front portion and the rear of the structure
proper are collapsing and should be removed... still has many of its original details, has a degree of
formality that is unique to the neighborhood and represents the period
in which it was built very well...It is worth noting that in general,
the removal of one half of a twin never looks as good as would an intact
pair. Arguably it reduces the property value of the neighborhood to
have the rhythm of the buildings disrupted and having the north façade
of the 824 property covered with stucco and without windows. It
certainly must have a negative impact on the value of the 824 property. "
Moreover, the loss of everyone of these historic buildings decreases the value of our town.
I posted my own question to Facebook yesterday -- "...someone please
explain to me why we have a HARB to supposedly protect the historic
areas if no one in the municipal government listens to them and keeps
allowing our historic buildings to be demolished? What will we have
then? A review board for all of our vacant lots?"
Councilwoman Valerie Scott Cooper: "In response to the post regarding
the property at 826 DeKalb St, both the Municipal Engineer and the
owner's inspector have deemed the structure dangerous. And it is too
expensive for the owner to repair. He does have the right to tear it
Response from Councilwoman Olivia Brady: "This is an
unfortunate situation and too often what happens in Norristown -
demolition by neglect. But yes, as Councilwoman Scott Cooper said, the
building has been deemed dangerous by our engineers and the property
owner is within his rights to demolish. HARBs, by law, all over the
state can only advise and have no real teeth in preservation so they
cannot demand the building be saved."
The owner listed in the
Montco Property Records is GMAC Mortgage of Ft Washington, but on
looking them up, I found they'd filed for bankruptcy in December of
2013, only 2 months after they came into possession of the house. They
were taken over by Ocwen Financial of West Palm Beach, FL. Ocwen is the
owner listed on the HARB application. So I looked them up. Their assets
in December of 2015 totaled (you might want to sit down) 7.405 BILLION.
Their sales numbers for the last quarter of 2015 were estimated to be
Pardon me if I don't feel real sorry for them, with
how "expensive" shoring up a single wall would be after demolishing the
back section of the house. All the more so because Ocwen has been in
trouble more than once for taking advantage of their borrowers,
according to the Federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. People
have lost their homes because of Ocwen's misconduct.
I do agree
that, by law, we can't demand our historic buildings be saved. Yet,
rather than demand, we could at least coax. We apparently don't DO anything. Council could ask
questions when situations like this arise. If Codes is doing its job, we
should have more than enough notice of a building's deterioration long
before it gets to the point where demolition is necessary. We could ask
owners "How can we as a town help you save this historic structure?" We
could let the HARB help them. And if we're dealing with out-of-town,
absentee slumlords, as we are in the case of 826 Dekalb and
elsewhere, then we need some laws on the books that would make owners
more accountable for maintaining their properties, so we never need get
to the point where they solve their problems with demolition.
what will happen to 826 Dekalb?. Possibly its removal will so weaken the
remaining twin that 824 will have to be torn down as well. Then we'll
have a big vacant lot in that block and someone like Sarah Peck will
come along wanting to build a hundred condos on the spot. Hmm. I wonder
if that's what Council is thinking. Level all of our historic districts
so we can become Condo City, with people living elbow-to-elbow so we
have more residents to tax. I might also point out that 826 Dekalb is
463 feet from Arbor Heights, the erection of which, Ms. Peck insists,
cleared up all the blight in the neighborhood. There are other neglected
historic properties within 2 blocks of Arbor Heights. Is Council doing
anything about them or will they be destroyed as well?
to say, unless I start hearing ideas out of Council soon about better
ways to preserve our historic districts and the architecture they
contain, I will work actively to make sure none of our current council
reps get re-elected. In less than 2 years, we've lost Montgomery
Hospital, we're slated to lose the Ersine Tennis Club at 1529 Dekalb and
now 826 Dekalb. Council has shown nothing but indifference in each
case. We don't need people running this town who nonchalantly let our
crown jewels be destroyed.